By: Mark Fitzgerald
Lancaster, Ohio, pop. 35,335, won’t ever be confused with Manhattan. Columbus is the nearest big city, about 35 minutes away. Go north, says Lancaster Eagle-Gazette Publisher Rick Szabrak, and you’re in new suburbia. Go south, and you’re in farmland.
So when Managing Editor Antoinette Taylor-Thomas is interviewing any young person ? especially a candidate of color ? she stays “blatantly honest” about homey Lancaster, where racial and ethnic minorities make up just 5.3% of the community. “If you’re looking for clubs, this isn’t the place,” she warns.
Increasingly, though, Lancaster is attracting more than its share of minority journalists. The Eagle-Gazette fills 33.3% of its newsroom positions with people of color. Industrywide, minorities are just 13.6% of daily newsrooms.
But the Eagle-Gazette’s achievement is even more impressive when measured by the “diversity index” adopted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) for its census. The index compares the percentage of minorities in the newsroom with the same percentage in a paper’s circulation area, with parity being 100. U.S. newspapers as a whole average 41.2, and papers the size of the 13,795-circulation Lancaster daily average just 32. This year, the Eagle-Gazette’s diversity index was a hefty 628, leading ASNE to honor it as one of the top “diversity pacesetters.” In past years, the Eagle-Gazette’s index has been as high as 1,251.
The newspaper’s success in this area is explained by journalists who have gone through it like Shawn Chollette, who describes himself as “Afro-Hispanic.” He told his advisor in the Chips Quinn Scholars training program that he would go “anywhere in the world” for his first newspaper assignment. “When she said, ‘You’re going to a place called Lancaster, Ohio,’ I wanted to say, ‘Hey, I was lying when I said I would go anywhere,'” the New Orleans native laughs. But Chollette adds that the diversity of the newsroom made him feel at home: “There were young people, there were old people, there were gay people ? there was every kind of person you could think of.” And in every newsroom slot he found eager teachers.
Publisher Szabrak says that wide-ranging learning opportunities in a culture of diversity makes the Eagle-Gazette ? “We’re not kidding ourselves that we’re an end destination,” he says ? a great place for journalists of color to start. That’s certainly the way Chollette feels: “I’ve sold that newspaper to everybody I know.” The Eagle-Gazette even showed a slight weekday circulation gain in the March 2007 FAS-FAX report.